Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Afghanistan’s hell, the Sangin Valley: Why Sangin?

November 7, 2011

OEF and the ISAF mission creep


The war in Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001. The US named the war Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). It is most important to understand OEF’s objectives: The initial military objectives of OEF-A, as articulated by Former President George W. Bush in his September 20, 2001 address to a Joint Session of Congress and his October 7, 2001 address to the country, included
the destruction of terrorist training camps and infrastructure within Afghanistan, the capture of al-Qaeda leaders, and the cessation of terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Please keep those words in mind.

The US and Britain allied with the Afghan United Front, known best as the Northern Alliance, to launch a military effort to unseat the Taliban government. That said, this was an American-led war to punish the Taliban government of Afghanistan for harboring terrorists planning and executing attacks against the USA.
This was, in the minds of most Americans, a retaliatory attack for 9-11.


Northern Alliance fighters, some in and atop armored vehicles, entered the Afghan capital, Kabul, just after dawn on November 13, 2001. Presented by Middle East Project.

Initially, the Northern Alliance worked with American and British special forces along with massive US air support and CIA special activities.

At the outset of the war, the main effort was in northern Afghanistan. By November 13, 2001, Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance, just a matter of weeks. Most of the Taliban leadership fled to Pakistan. But many Taliban fled to southern Afghanistan, mainly to the area of Kandahar.

FOB Rhino, presented by

In November 2001 the US established its first ground forces base in Afghanistan, one hundred miles southwest of Kandahar, known as Forward Operating Base (FOB) Rhino.


A Marine with the 15th MEU (Special Operations Capable) leads a column of Marines to a security position after seizing a Taliban forward-operating base on November 25, 2001, a base which came to be called FOB Rhino. Presented by wikipedia

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) took the base on November 25, 2011, in what some say was the longest amphibious raid in history. They flew in aboard CH-53E Super Stallions with AH-1W Super Cobra gunship escorts from the 15th MEU embarked on the amphibious assault ship USS
Peleliu in the Arabian Sea.

The Northern Alliance took over Kandahar in December, though some Taliban elements remained to fight.


Afghan cabinet deal signed at Bonn Conference, December 5, 2001. Presented by September 11 News.

Following the ouster of the Taliban government, an international conference was held in Germany in December 2001, called the Bonn Conference, and appointed Hamid Karzai as the leader of Afghanistan.
September 11 News reported:

“The leaders of Afghanistan's four main ethnic groups agreed in principle to a new interim government. The Bonn delegates broke into applause and handshakes after the deal was announced.

“Speaking from Kabul, Northern Alliance Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said, ‘The transition of war to peace is taking place in a very smooth manner … Nobody expected, after 23 years of war, in a matter of days, that we will agree upon every detail."

In retrospect, remarkable words.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) created the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) on December 20, 2001 as a follow-on action to the Bonn Conference.

The UN ISAF was assigned to secure Kabul. I must underscore that this was a UN force. The Afghan armed forces were given the responsibility to secure the rest of the country.

The Defense Committee of the British House of Commons issued its
Fifth Report of Session 2005-2006, “The UK Deployment to Afghanistan,” on March 28, 2006. This report explains well what happened at the Bonn Conference:

“The December 2001 Bonn Agreement set out a twin-track political and stabilisation process for Afghanistan. Plans were set out for nationwide presidential and parliamentary elections and an international force to ensure stability in and around the capital Kabul.”

The UN Security Council Resolution 1386 mandated a 5,000 strong ISAF to achieve this. So very quickly, what had begun as an American-led invasion to retaliate against the 9-11 attacks against the US now had moved on to setting up a system of governance for Afghanistan. Furthermore, at this point, the UN effort was confined to Kabul.

The Americans, however, felt they still had business to finish, that of eliminating the al Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden, a network that trained in Afghanistan and, according to the US, led the 9-11 attacks.The US had dubbed the war in Afghanistan “OEF,” (Operation Enduring Freedom), and maintained that name as its forces went after al Qaeda.

So, we have a two pronged effort here, each separate from the other, one led by the UN with some US participation, the other led by the US with ad hoc Allied participation; one designed to create democratic governance in Kabul, the other designed to destroy al Qaeda and its leadership, a job that focused mainly in eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan.

As an editorial comment, the US of course signed up to UN Security Council Resolution 1386, so it was a US decision to support this mission expansion. In retrospect, I would argue that was a big mistake. We went in to take care of the Taliban and al Qaeda, not to spread democracy.

The British 3rd UK Mechanized Division set up the initial UN ISAF headquarters in Kabul. A Kabul Multinational Brigade was formed to cover the capital area. It was composed of three battle groups. This was known as ISAF I, Major General Sir John McColl, Britain in command. The plan was to rotate command among the various participants. Turkey for example followed the British and took command of ISAF II. A problem that would confront the UN throughout these initial years was finding countries willing to take command. This and the historic UN inability to run military operations would ultimately lead to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) taking control, which I will get to shortly.


US soldiers from B/1-187th Infantry prepare to move out after being dropped off by a Chinook helicopter at the combat zone during Operation Anaconda, March 2002. Presented by wikipedia.

In March 2002, the US and its ad hoc assemblage of allies involved in OEF launched Operation Anaconda in an attempt to destroy al Qaeda and their allied Taliban forces in the Shah-i-Kot Valley and Arma Mountains in eastern Afghanistan, in Paktika Province, south of Kabul on the Pakistan border. The US and its allies dealt the enemy a lethal blow and, as a result, the enemy largely “dispersed into the weeds.” So the year 2002 becomes a significant milestone.

From roughly 2002 through 2006 the Taliban did not cause the Allies a significant amount of trouble.This was in large part due to the enemy going into hiding, largely in Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, to regroup, refit and reorganize. Because of this general lull, western interest in growing democracy in Afghanistan and rebuilding the country just became more pronounced.

In October 2003 NATO officially took over the UN ISAF mission. This would be the first time in its history that NATO would conduct military operations outside the European-Atlantic area. Following the end of the Cold War, NATO reorganized to take on just this kind of endeavor as a means to remain relevant. NATO members wanted to be more flexible and have the capacity to intervene in what it considered “small conflicts,” fighting terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, conduct peacekeeping operations, and support humanitarian operations. A problem that would develop for NATO as it took over ISAF is that the US was most interested in OEF and therefore devoted only scant force structure to NATO ISAF. That meant the European members would have to carry the ball, and most of them were not equipped to do so.

Whatever the case, ISAF now became a NATO command operating under UN mandate, Lt. General David Richards, Britain (shown in the photo) in command. NATO said ISAF’s key priorities were as follows:

  • Protect the Afghan people
    • Build the capacity of Afghan forces to secure their own country
    • Counter any insurgencies
    • Enable the delivery of stronger governance and development.

So here again, you see that the mission went far beyond what the US had originally said it intended in OEF.

Incredibly, as time passed, the NATO ISAF expanded its reach, originally limited to Kabul, to cover all Afghanistan. In retrospect, the NATO ISAF leaders had completely misunderstood what Afghanistan was all about and what the Taliban-Pakistan relationships were. ISAF expanded its reach, and at the same time would overstretch its military capabilities to handle that reach.

NATO ISAF expansion occurred in stages. As an aside, Daykundi province was created from the northern districts of Uruzgan (Oruguzgan) province on March 28, 2004. This delineation is included on the maps that follow. Most maps you see on the net are wrong.


December 2003 - October 2004: Assign command of the Kunduz Province to German ISAF forces. Then expand the area of responsibility (AOR) to include Mazar-e-Sharif, Meymana, Feyzabad and Baghlan (denoted by green dots) all in northern Afghanistan. This would become known as Regional Command-North (RC-N) and would be under German command.


February 2005: ISAF took command over Herat and Farah provinces in the west, then Ghor and then Baghdis provinces. This would become known as Regional Command West (RC-W), under the command of the Italians.

Thus far, the expansion plan seemed reasonable to NATO. But that was in part due to the fact that the northern and western sections of Afghanistan would for a long time remain fairly docile and peaceful. Eastern and Southern Afghanistan were completely different stories.

The year 2006 marked a major turning point. The revitalized Taliban, allied with many other Islamic fighters from other countries, came out of the woodwork within Afghanistan and Pakistan to launch major operations in Afghanistan with a view toward defeating the western nations and forcing them out.


On May 4, 2006 the British took command of ISAF IX in Kabul. This mission was led by the Headquarters Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC). The ARRC was formed in 1992 based on the former British I Corps. The ARRC was commanded by a British general officer.


ISAF had earlier decided to take command of Day Kundi, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Uruzgan, Daykundi and Zabul provinces, the latter five of which bordered in the south with Pakistan. This effort was completed on July 31, 2006 with the establishment of Regional Command South (RC-S), headquartered at Kandahar. The Canadians were the first to command it, followed by the British, and Dutch, and, ultimately the US in 2010. There would be a subsequent division of RC-S into two commands, RC-S and RC-Southwest (RC-SW), but I will address that much later. I want to note here, however, that NATO again showed how it misunderstood Afghanistan by expanding its reach to what would turn out to be a most volatile southern Afghanistan. Everyone already knew eastern Afghanistan was volatile because of the large American OEF force fighting there.


By October 2006, NATO ISAF expanded further to take the eastern provinces under its fold, establishing Regional Command-East (RC-E). This was a high undertaking. RC-E included fourteen provinces: Bamyan, Ghazni, Kapisa, Khost, Kunar, Laghman, Logar, Nangarhar, Nuristan, Paktika, Paktiya, Panjshir, Parwan, and WardakPlease. With this action, NATO took over the responsibilities of the US-led OEF coalition. That said, the US kept 8,000 troops out of RC-E to fight terrorism, to wit, hunt down and destroy al Qaeda, OEF.

The British General Sir David Richards was still in command of NATO ISAF, but now he commanded all NATO ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Be sure to understand this. He was not in command of OEF US forces operating mostly in the east, against al Qaeda.

The US had been in charge of Helmand. That now changed. ISAF relieved the US of responsibility for Helmand. The Americans did not have a significant force there and, because of its OEF interests, was more focused on eastern Afghanistan anyway.

During 2006 the US began pushing for a merger between ISAF and OEF. There was significant overlap and the two commands created confusion. ISAF had issues, however. You will recall that between 2002 and 2006, the tide of western strategy had moved a great deal. Decisions were made among the Allies to provide security and reconstruction support for all Afghanistan and help her build a democracy, known by the phrase “security and stabilization.” OEF was an unambiguous COIN operation and the ISAF group feared getting bogged down in such a combat effort, calling it “mission creep.”

It was technically mission creep for ISAF given what I have outlined as the missions it established when forming up years earlier. However from an American standpoint, the invasion of the Afghanistan that it led was designed to oust the Taliban government and destroy al Qaeda and its allies, which included the Taliban. As an American, it seems to me that ISAF created the mission creep, not the US. I suppose this is an arguable point of view so I’ll drop it there.

The merger would not occur at this time.

The British take over Helmand, Operation Herrick

  • 3 Commando Brigade: Task Force Helmand, Operation Herrick V
  • 12 Mechanized Brigade: Task Force Helmand, Operation Herrick VI
  • 52 Infantry Brigade: Task Force Helmand, Operation Herrick VII